The strangest era of USF men's basketball included a season with four "home" courts

AAC Basketball Tournament - Semifinals
AAC Basketball Tournament - Semifinals / Aric Becker/ISI Photos/GettyImages

Chip Conner, a genuinely good man, died recently. Long-time USF men’s basketball watchers should recognize his name. He coached the Bulls from 1975 to halfway through the 1980 season in what was truly the strangest era in program history.

And brother, that’s saying something. Maybe that's what USF coach Amir-Abdur Rahim referred to when he famously quipped during his wildly successful first season, "This ain't the same old South Florida."

Sure, USF just completed a fine season, but jump in the Wayback Machine to a different time filled with plot twists that required watchers to suspend their disbelief.

It started when Bill Gibson brought Conner along as his top assistant when Gibson surprised just about everyone by leaving his job as the head coach at the University of Virginia, where he was once named the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year. It was considered a major coup for USF, and Gibson rewarded the school with a 15-10 mark in his season.

It turned out to be his only season. Gibson died of a suspected heart attack on July 23, 1975. He was only 47.

Conner was elevated to take his place.

His tenure was marked by the team’s wild fluctuations. The Bulls went from 19 wins in his first year to only nine in the second. That was followed by 13 wins, and then things seemed headed in the right direction. The Conner-led Bulls, despite starting four freshmen, finished 14-14 and advanced to the finals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.

Here’s where it gets really weird. You can't make this stuff up.

The 1979-80 season was anticipated with great optimism. USF was set to move into the new on-campus Sun Dome and had scheduled North Carolina as the dedication game. However, construction delays meant the arena wasn’t close to being ready, forcing the Bulls to scramble for home courts.

They had four different “homes” that season – the Bayfront Center in St. Pete (3 games), the Florida State Fairgrounds (7 games), the Lakeland Civic Center (3 games), and Tampa’s Curtis Hixon Hall (3 games).

That dedication game against North Carolina, which seemed to hold so much promise, turned into a 93-62 blowout loss at the Bayfront Center.

The good vibes of the four freshmen returning as sophomores disintegrated into a losing spiral that cost Conner his job after an 84-55 loss at South Alabama in mid-January. The Bulls finished 6-21.

The weirdness kept on coming, though.

USF again went for the big score and hired Lee Rose as the next head coach. Rose had just led Purdue to the Final Four, his second trip to the promised land of college basketball.

The idea that Rose would leave all that to coach an obscure team with no national prominence seemed preposterous, but there he was.


There was one minor problem.

The Sun Dome still wasn’t to be ready to occupy by the time basketball season started.

Wanna bet?

Rose said his team was moving in, no matter how far along construction of the Dome was. He meant it, too.

Rose, who died in 2022, had the cache to pull off such an outrageous demand, so the Bulls and their Final Four coach began another strange season. Only the upper deck and lower seating sections were finished. The middle section, where most of the seats were located, was nothing but a vast, empty space.

No matter.

USF kept playing there and, after some early settling in, began to win consistently. At one point, the Bulls reeled off 12 wins in a row, and the capacity of the Dome kept changing as construction continued. That meant that they set a home attendance record virtually every game as fans caught the fever.

Their 18 wins were enough to get the Bulls into the NIT for the first time, and the game against UConn quickly sold out. The Dome was up to full capacity by then, so more than 10,000 fans filled the place that night.

It was the most excitement about USF hoops ever until Abdur-Rahim took over as head coach last season and led the Bulls to a regular-season conference title and sellout crowds at what is now the Yuengling Center.

Order has once again been restored for USF’s basketball program.

Believe it.